It's Buyer Beware for Bengals Defensive End Michael Johnson

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It's Buyer Beware for Bengals Defensive End Michael Johnson
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

If this were bodybuilding, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson would be the unquestioned clubhouse leader for impending free agents. After all, this 6'7", 270-pound freak looks as if he's carved from granite.

For the Atlanta Falcons, who are in desperate need of a major impact at edge-rusher, adding consistent players to their front seven should supersede bringing in a flashy name or a physique star.

So the Falcons' regime needs to do something it's normally not known for doing. It needs to not succumb to pressure from fans and pundits in regard to personnel. Atlanta needs to simply look elsewhere other than Johnson to satiate its pass-rush desires.


Inconsistent Production

As a local standout at Georgia Tech, Johnson played on one of the most stacked rosters in recent memory—especially for an ACC outfit. Players like: Calvin Johnson (Megatron), Demaryius Thomas (Denver Broncos), Morgan Burnett (Green Bay Packers), Derrick Morgan (Tennessee Titans), Vance Walker (Atlanta), Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh Steelers), Anthony Allen (Baltimore Ravens), Tashard Choice (Dallas Cowboys), Philip Wheeler (Indianapolis Colts) and Gary Guyton (New England Patriots) all suited up with Johnson.

Credit: AJC.com
Johnson looking ripped at Georgia Tech

But it was the underachieving Johnson that garnered a great deal of publicity. Critics would always pose the question: Why isn't Johnson dominating college football? 

From an aesthetic standpoint, Johnson looked as though he could move mountains. But from a production standpoint he would rarely bust a grape. After a sophomore year in which he achieved six sacks, he was projected as the next breakout star, but he followed it up with a putrid four sacks his junior season. 

It wasn't until Johnson posted nine sacks his senior season that he somewhat lived up to his billing. But he wasn't fooling most NFL scouts as he was still drafted in the third round by the Bengals in the 2009 draft.

History once again repeated itself as it wasn't until the 2012 season, coincidentally Johnson's fourth season, that he lived up to his potential with a career high 11.5 sacks. Before that, his totals were three, 2.5 and six. 

But the kicker was the 3.5 sacks Johnson put up this past season—in a contract year. 

One thing Johnson must get credit for is his durability—as this season was the first that he missed anytime—which makes his career total of 26.5 sacks even more puzzling.

Michael Johnson's Career Stats
Year GP Sacks Tackles Stuffs
2009 16 3.0 17 0
2010 16 2.5 35 2
2011 16 6.0 42 1
2012 16 11.5 52 2
2013 15 3.5 56 3

Credit: ESPN.com

But when you factor in that Johnson is probably the least-effective player on the Bengals' line, his lack of production is enough to drive anyone crazy. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap warrant enough attention to spring anyone loose—while the 6'3", 322-pound Domata Peko eats up blocks at the other tackle position.

11.5-sack seasons should be the norm for Johnson as he's operated in one-on-one situations the majority of his career.

It can easily be argued that Johnson is the fifth-most effective player on the line with backup Wallace Gilberry generating 7.5 sacks this past season.

This lack of production, sans one season, has to be alarming for potential suitors. Especially those looking to hand Johnson a sizeable contract as one of the most sought after pass-rushers on the market.

In my nine years of watching Johnson, he's had two good seasons and seven below-average seasons. Ask yourself this: If your production at your respective job mimicked Johnson's, would you be considered one of the hottest prospects in your field?

You would if you were 6'7" and 270 pounds.


Film Study

Now let's not get it twisted, at times Johnson can be downright frightening for tackles. But that's usually only twice a season.

Zing!

No seriously; Johnson has an explosive first step and very long arms. He has the ability to run the arc or use power moves to reach paydirt. But he's a hit-or-miss player in regards to effort. And that's not something the Falcons should pay top dollar for—although they certainly might. 

Additionally, he's good at chasing down ball-carriers, but can be a liability when teams run directly at him. His length, at times, makes it hard for him to anchor down in the run game. 

Credit: NFL Rewind

Here we see Johnson lined up at the 5-technique. The Packers are running a stretch play to Johnson's side. You would think this would be easily defended by Johnson as he has outside leverage.  

Credit: NFL Rewind

Usually when you're playing in the trenches, you two-gap and then react. Johnson tries to shoot the gap and gets stuffed like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Then his head was on the inside shoulder of the tackle. He'd need the type of strength that Mario Williams (Buffalo) possesses to defeat the block and get back to the outside.  

Credit: NFL Rewind

Instead, it looks as though he had the type of strength Michelle Williams, from the pop group Destiny's Child, might possess. The lineman drove Johnson and made him do the "Stanky Leg" dance. To his credit, Johnson got a hand on the ball-carrier while showing off those long arms.

Credit: NFL Rewind

Down goes Johnson!  

Although Johnson weighs 270 pounds, it's thoroughly distributed—due to his height—so much that Johnson could be considered to be on the thinner side. When you factor in that Williams, Mario not Michelle, is 292 pounds (at 6'6") you can plainly see the discrepancy. 

With the struggles Atlanta had with its run defense (31st overall), acquiring a player who has trouble anchoring is downright scary. 

It becomes even scarier when you consider that Johnson disappears for long stretches at a time and provides effort like this:

 

Credit: NFL Rewind

Johnson gave a half-hearted effort without even extending his arms. He let the tackle push him out the play as the back generated an explosive run to his side of the formation. Johnson didn't even bother rallying to the ball he just lollygagged behind the play.

The film doesn't lie. 

 

Summary

 

Johnson has the ability to potentially be great. But the word potential has a cousin named underachiever—and both are sitting in Johnson's driveway as we speak. For the Falcons' brass to count on Johnson to have an impact like former end John Abraham is absurd. 

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By comparison, Abraham had 43 sacks in his first five seasons in the NFL to Johnson's aforementioned 26.5. Furthermore, Abraham just equaled Johnson's career-high total this past season...at age 35!

Johnson is a No. 2 rusher that will command No. 1 money.

Atlanta is better off drafting a young edge-rusher like the University of Buffalo's Khalil Mack or UCLA's Anthony Barr with its first-round selection rather than giving a player that averages five sacks per season a hefty contract.

Both of those players are maximum effort guys that were highly productive in college.

In regard to Johnson, my mother always told me: Over time, if a person shows you who they are, believe them!  

Or was that former New York Giants coach Bill Parcells? Who knows? They both yelled a lot. 


Note: Atlanta, did we not learn anything from the Ray Edwards debacle a few years back?  


After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.

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